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This Day in History: The origins of the Great Seal of the United States

On this day in 1782, the Confederation Congress adopts the Great Seal of the United States. The seal was nearly 6 years in the making! Congress had been working on it since July 4, 1776, not too long after the American Revolution began.

You may think of July 4 as the day that the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence. That’s true, but Congress accomplished other things that day as well. For instance, Congress passed a resolution that “Dr. [Benjamin] Franklin, Mr. J[ohn] Adams and Mr. [Thomas] Jefferson, be a committee, to bring in a device for a seal for the United States of America.” All three men had helped to write the Declaration. Now they would struggle together to create a graphic depiction of the values important to the new nation, as represented in its seal.

They didn’t quite succeed. The committee presented an idea for a seal in August 1776, but that proposal was not approved. Nevertheless, at least two aspects of the Franklin/Adams/Jefferson seal would survive. The Eye of Providence and the Latin motto “E Pluribus Unum” were both retained from this original proposal.

A second committee was appointed in March 1780. These men, too, ultimately failed to satisfy Congress, but they contributed a few more ideas that would eventually find their way into the final seal: 13 red and white stripes on a shield, a constellation of 13 stars, and an olive branch.

After another delay, a third committee was appointed in May 1782. This committee contributed more ideas but again failed to receive congressional approval. It is from this committee that we got the idea for an eagle (but not the bald eagle) and an unfinished pyramid on the reverse side.

Were people starting to get frustrated after this third failed attempt? By now, the Battle of Yorktown was over and Americans were negotiating a peace treaty with Britain. The need for a seal was getting greater. Perhaps Congress felt more urgency, because things began to move faster.

On June 13, 1782, Congress asked Charles Thomson, Secretary of Congress, to wrap up the project. Thomson selected features from each of the three previous proposals and combined them into one design. (See attached picture for his sketch.)

Thomason replaced the eagle with a bald eagle—it was more genuinely American. He kept “E Pluribus Unum” on the front, but he added “Annuit Coeptis” on the back. The latter phrase roughly translates to “he favors our undertakings.” In this instance, “he” is God. Thomson later explained that the Latin was a reference to God’s approval of the American effort. He explained to Congress: “The Eye over [the pyramid] & the Motto allude to the many signal interpositions of providence in favour of the American cause.”

An interesting bit of trivia: Both “E Pluribus Unum” and “Annuit Coeptis” contain 13 letters, matching the other incidences of the number 13 on our seal (13 arrows; 13 leaves on the olive branch). Did Thomson plan that? We will never know.

William Barton of Philadelphia helped to refine Thomson’s sketches. For instance, he changed the wing spread of the eagle so the tips would face up. The final proposal was presented to Congress and finally approved on June 20.

The road to create a seal had proven to be nearly as long as the American Revolution itself.